November 5th as we all know marks Bonfire Night; a chilly festival of sparklers and fireworks commemorating the moment when a conspiracy to blow up Parliament was foiled at the last minute.
But how exactly did the Gunpowder Plot come about?
The plot’s roots originated during the reign of Elizabeth I; a time when persecution of Catholics had steadily risen, with fines, imprisonment and execution meted out to those who practiced the faith.
When King James I came to the throne in 1603, Catholics were hopeful he’d be more sympathetic- after all, his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had herself been Catholic. This optimism vanished however as James continued to enforce Elizabeth’s policies and banished all priests from the country.
Infuriated by these events was Robert Catesby, a 32 year old Catholic who’d sheltered priests at his home in Uxbridge since the 1590s. In February 1604, he met with two similarly disillusioned young men- Thomas Wintour and John Wright- at another property he owned in Lambeth. It was here that Catesby first proposed the idea of assassinating the king with explosives.
Agreeing to the plan, Wintour travelled to Europe to seek support. In Flanders he met and recruited 34 year old Yorkshireman, Guy Fawkes (aka ‘Guido’); an explosives expert and mercenary fighting for the Spanish army.
In May 1604, Guy Fawkes came to London and met the plot’s ringleaders at the Duck and Drake inn on The Strand where an oath of secrecy was sworn. In all, there would be 13 collaborators.
Later that year, another of the group- Thomas Percy- blagged a job as a royal bodyguard and acquired a house close to the House or Lords from which the conspirators began digging a tunnel. Guy Fawkes, under the rather unimaginative alias, ‘John Johnson’, posed as Percy’s servant, meaning he was at liberty to wander around Parliament.
In March 1605, a golden opportunity arose when a vault directly beneath the House of Lords became available to rent.
The laborious tunnelling was abandoned and Guy Fawkes began transferring the gunpowder (which had been stashed across the river in Catesby’s home) directly into the cellar. There was no need to rush. Due to an outbreak of plague, the opening of Parliament- at which King James would be in attendance- had been delayed until November 5th 1605.
The plot began to unravel in late October when Lord Monteagle, whilst dining in Hoxton, received an anonymous letter- most probably from his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham who was one of the plotters- warning him to avoid Parliament’s opening due to the threat of a “terrible blowe.”
With suspicions raised, Monteagle passed the letter to the king who ordered Parliament to be searched.
On the morning of November 4th, Guy Fawkes was spotted and questioned, but dismissed when he claimed he was merely a servant going about his business.
Still sceptical however, guards returned to Parliament in the early hours of November 5th where, once again, they discovered Guy Fawkes- this time equipped with a lantern, matches and fuses, and also dressed in a cloak and riding spurs for a hasty getaway. The plot has been rumbled.
After his arrest, Guy Fawkes was hauled to the Tower of London where he was subjected to horrendous torture.
It took him three days to crack and name his fellow conspirators who’d fled along Watling Street (now the A5) towards the midlands.
Armed with this information, the king’s men swiftly hunted them down. Catesby and Percy died in a shootout in Staffordshire, after which their heads were jabbed upon spikes outside Parliament.
Eight of the surviving plotters were found guilty of treason and consequently sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The first four executions took place outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the 30th January 1606 and the second batch- including that of Guy Fawkes- were held the following day in Old Palace Yard, between Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
After taking the noose Guy Fawkes suddenly leapt from the scaffold, snapping his neck for an instant death; thus sparing himself the horror of being disembowelled whilst still alive. His head was later drenched in tar and displayed on a spike above the gateway to London Bridge.
Francis Tresham meanwhile died from poisoning whilst imprisoned- a small mercy for the warning he’d supposedly given…
A Halloween Special
With a history dating back some two thousand years it’s hardly surprising that London is widely considered one of the planet’s most haunted cities.
So with Halloween approaching I thought now would be a good time to take a look at the top five ghostly images snapped within the capital…
1. The Queen’s House Ghosts
Location: Queen’s House, Greenwich
Year of capture: 1966
This haunting image was taken by Reverend R.W Hardy, a retired Canadian who was visiting the Queen’s House with his wife.
Commissioned in 1616 by Anne of Denmark (wife of James I) Queen’s House was designed by pioneering architect Inigo Jones and stands beside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
A major feature of Queen’s House are the Tulip Stairs; the elegance of which drew Mr and Mrs Hardy to the building.
When the photograph was taken, Reverend Hardy was simply interested in recording the architecture- no other figures were visible and whilst he framed the shot his wife checked to insure no passers-by were around to spoil the frame. The staircase was also roped off, complete with a ‘No Admittance’ sign.
Yet when Mr and Mrs Hardy had their photos developed back in Canada, the Tulip Stairs revealed a pair of mysterious, robed figures clutching the railings.
Photographic experts have examined the original negative and found no signs of tampering.
To add to the mystery, another apparent sighting was noted more recently in May 2002 by gallery assistant Tony Anderson who, along with two other colleagues, encountered something most unusual one morning:
“Something caught my eye… I thought at first it was the girl who did the talks at weekends, then realised the woman just glided across the balcony and went through the wall, west side… the lady was dressed in a white-grey colour, old-fashioned, something like a crinoline-type dress“.
2. St Botolph’s Church Ghost
Location: St Botolph’s Without Aldgate Church, Aldgate High Street
Year of capture: 1982
Hailing from 7th century East Anglia, Botwulf of Thorney– more commonly known as Saint Botolph– is the patron saint of travellers which is why, during the medieval era, four London churches were dedicated to his name, each built beside one of the city’s gates so that those embarking on a journey could pop in and pray for a safe trip.
Although one of St Botolph’s churches (which stood at Billingsgate) was destroyed in the Great Fire, the other three remain at Aldersgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate.
St Botolph’s, Aldgate (officially named St Botolph’s Without Aldgate) has been rebuilt several times; the current building dates back to 1744 and was designed by George Dance the Elder.
A stone’s throw from Whitechapel, St Botolph’s Without Aldgate was known as the ‘Church of Prostitutes’ during the Victorian era as the women of the night used to stay close to St Botolph’s walls in order to avoid police harassment.
The church was badly damaged both in the Blitz and by a fire in 1965- of which the cause remains unknown…
The famous picture of a ghostly figure in period dress peering down from the church loft was taken by Chris Brackley in 1982.
At the time, Chris was aware of three other people in the church- none of whom were in the upper level. Experts examined negatives and concluded that no tampering or double exposure were evident.
Location: Hampton Court Palace
Year of capture: 2003
Nicknamed ‘Skeletor’ thanks to his resemblance to the villain from 1980s cartoon, ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe‘, this spook was captured on CCTV at Hampton Court, the huge palace on London’s south-western outskirts which was originally built for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and later snapped up by Henry VIII.
During late 2003, an alarm was activated indicating that a set of fire-doors had been opened- yet staff found the exit firmly closed and nobody in the vicinity.
But when examined the CCTV footage suggested a very different story, showing a bizarre figure quickly flinging and slamming the doors. Other cameras focused on the area behind the doors showed the building to be empty.
The doors opened by themselves again the next day, although no figure was present this time. Around the same time, a visitor to Hampton Court noted in the guest book that she’d glimpsed a mysterious figure…
Dr Richard Wiseman, an expert in debunking ghostly photographs is stumped by the footage “it could be the best ghost sighting ever…I haven’t seen anything that would match that at all.”
The Skeletor figure made headlines around the world, and it is reported that some staff at Hampton Court are now reluctant to work within the supposedly haunted area.
Please click below to view the CCTV footage:
4. The Bakerloo Electric Chair
Location: The Bakerloo Line, deep beneath Marylebone
Year of capture: 1983
This bizarre image was clicked inside the carriage of a Bakerloo line train by Watford resident, Karen Collett whilst on a day trip to London with her family.
The sinister figure in the window behind Karen’s nephew is a disconcerting mix of the known and the unexplainable.
It is generally agreed that the ghostly figure depicts the wax effigy of Bruno Hauptmann; a convict sent to the electric chair in 1936 for his part in the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.
When Karen took her photograph in the early 1980s, Hauptmann’s wax figure was on display in Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors section- a venue which the Bakerloo line passes deep beneath.
What is unusual is this: when the photo was taken, Karen and her family had not been to Madame Tussauds, let alone take any pictures of figures strapped in chairs. Nor does Hauptmann’s waxwork have electric blue flashes zapping out of his wrists.
No evidence of tampering has been found with this image and the only explanation offered so far is that the electrifying image is a poster… although the photo was taken whilst the train was speeding through a tunnel (where, of course no posters are displayed) and neither Madame Tussauds or London Underground have any record of using advertising containing such imagery.
5. The Enfield Poltergeist
Location: Green Street, Enfield
Year of capture: 1978
Caught by a remote camera during the early hours, the image above is one of many documenting the case of the ‘Enfield Poltergeist‘ which occurred in suburban North London during the late 1970s.
The story of the Enfield Poltergeist is deeply unsettling… either the result of true psychic malice or two supremely manipulative teenagers. A full article- written as last year’s Halloween special can be read here.
London is deservedly famous for its ‘lungs’; the many parks and open spaces which can be found dotted liberally around the capital.
So prominent is this abundance of foliage that many first time visitors I meet in my taxi often comment on just how much greenery there is on show in the city.
One of the loveliest and most central of these lush areas is St James’s Park, a beautiful 90 acre site, alive with trees and wildlife, which lies sandwiched between Whitehall and Buckingham Palace.
The park gained its name from St James’s hospital; an institution which once stood on the northern edge of the present day site.
First recorded in 1267, St James’s hospital came to specialise in caring for female lepers who were given the task of raising hogs upon what was then a bleak, marshy field far from the edge of town.
Despite these humble beginnings, the hospital eventually evolved into a far grander residence- St James’s Palace.
The Royals take over
It was during the reign of Henry VIII (king from 1509-1547) that the barren terrain began to evolve into a park.
Never shy of land-grabbing, the bombastic monarch took over the boggy field belonging to St James’s hospital and had it drained.
Once this engineering project was complete, the now solid ground was turned into an early kind of leisure complex, serving the neighbouring (and now long vanished) Whitehall Palace. The main activities played out on the newly created area were bowls and jousting.
As well as using the park to show off his sporting prowess, Henry VIII also utilized the area as a nursery for breeding young deer… which, once mature, would be carted off to the hunting grounds of nearby Hyde Park where the unfortunate creatures would be hunted for sport. This practice was later continued by Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I.
King James I (who ruled between 1603 and 1625) also dabbled in the park with which he shared a name.
The Edinburgh-born monarch had formal gardens laid out and also introduced a menagerie (which, amongst other beasts, boasted two crocodiles) and an aviary- which is where Birdcage Walk, the road which runs along the park’s southern border, takes its name from.
There can be little doubt that James I’s successor, Charles I also enjoyed the delights of St James’s.
Ultimately however, the royal park played a sombre role in Charles’ politically fraught life… for it was through the park, on January 30th 1649, that King Charles I took his final stroll. His destination: the Banqueting House at Whitehall where, having been found guilty of high treason following his defeat in the English Civil War, he had an appointment with the executioner’s axe…
King Charles I took his final walk swathed in an extra layer of clothing- being a cold winter morning, he didn’t want to shiver for fear that the large crowd would mistake such shakes as a symptom of cowardice.
As he made his way through St James’s Park, the brave monarch was also accompanied by his faithful dog, Rogue who refused to leave his master’s side.
Following the death of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell took charge.
A puritan in the very strictest sense of the word, Cromwell outlawed pretty much anything that embraced pleasure and fun- even Christmas was banned.
Consequently, St James’s Park fell into severe decline during Cromwell’s rule and, being austere times, many trees in the park were chopped down by people desperate for fuel.
It comes as no surprise therefore that when Cromwell died, the public, craving the good old days when they were allowed to indulge in booze and debauchery, seized the opportunity to bring back the monarchy.
Charles II, who had been in exile following his father’s brutal execution, was promptly invited a back; an offer which he gladly accepted.
A restoration for both park and nation
Charles II was a renowned party animal; a trait no doubt boosted by the jubilation following the restoration of the monarchy.
His ability to enjoy life to the full is humorously illustrated in the following, fun clip from the BBC’s Horrible Histories series:
Having been born in St James’s Palace, Charles II no doubt held a soft-spot for the neighbouring park and it was during his relaxed reign that St James’s Park as we know it today began to take shape.
Inspired by the grand, royal gardens he’d witnessed during his time in France, Charles II introduced orchards, a broad avenue, an area for playing Paille-Maille (a French game similar to croquet) and a long stretch of water which became known as the ‘canal’.
Charles II’s improvements resulted in the park growing by 36 acres and the playboy king could often be spotted in St James’s, walking his dogs, feeding the birds, taking a dip in the water….and courting his numerous mistresses.
Centuries later, during WWI, Charles II’s former pool was deliberately drained in order to accommodate temporary government structures- including the passport office. The lake was not filled in again until 1922.
What do you buy for a king who has everything?
Well, in 1664, the Russian ambassador came up with the answer when he presented Charles II with a very special gift for his flourishing park… a family of pelicans.
Today, some 350 years on, the descendants of these quirky regal gifts continue to breed within the park, and their huge beaks and gentle, friendly nature have made them one of St James’s most endearing sights.
Every day, between 2.30 and 3.00pm, you can see the pelicans being fed tasty fresh fish by the park keepers.
Some time ago one of the pelicans somehow discovered that a similar feeding practice took place at London Zoo in Regent’s Park… and so would regularly fly the 2 ½ mile journey in order to pinch the grub!
This mischievous practice ended quite recently; I have a suspicion that the St James’s Park keepers had to increase the daily allowance in order to satisfy and prevent the hungry bird from straying!
A sordid playground
Following the death of Charles II in 1685, St James’s Park once again fell into rapid decline, with the grass and plants overgrowing and the water turning stagnant.
Amongst this neglect, the park became something of a no-go area, developing into a notorious red-light district.
St James’s also became the haunt of criminal gangs- most notably the infamous Mohocks, a terrifying bunch of well-to-do young men who delighted in unleashing all manner of terror and violent assault.
One of the Mohocks’ favourite japes was to attack passing sedan chairs, running their sword through the passenger compartment in the hope that they’d impale the unfortunate traveller inside…
The debauched nature of St James’s Park during this era was evoked in a poem by John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Entitled A Ramble in St James’s Park, the late 17th century poem makes liberal use of foul language and smutty imagery which quite frankly, would make even the bluest of today’s 21st century comedians blush.
So offensive is the poem that it was banned from publication right up until the 1960s.
The life of John Wilmot was portrayed in the 2004 film, The Libertine with the bawdy Earl played by screen legend, Johnny Depp.
Wishing to keep this a family site, I will refrain from quoting the poem here- it really is that nasty! If you wish to satisfy your curiosity, you’ll have to enlist Google (don’t worry; there are plenty of copies available online, but if you do choose to have a read… you have been warned, it is 24 carat filth!)
Nineteenth century improvements
Although prostitution remained a problem for many years, the park gradually began to improve with the appointment of Lord Pomfret as park ranger.
In the 1820s gas lighting was introduced and Charles II’s now filthy lake was remodelled.
In 1814, in order to celebrate the end of war with France, a towering Chinese pagoda was erected in the middle of the park along with an ornamental bridge.
Sadly, during the subsequent celebrations, fireworks set fire to the pagoda which burnt to the ground in an inferno even more spectacular than the intended pyrotechnics, killing a lamplighter and injuring many others.
The bridge however survived, remaining until 1825. It has since been replaced by a far plainer version.
As for pagodas… although the St James’s model has long since gone, you can still find a magnificent Japanese example a little further south in Battersea Park- please click here to read more.
Later in the 19th century, a little cottage was built on ‘Duck Island’ at the park’s eastern end.
Modelled on a Swiss chalet (as a deliberate contrast to the nearby government blocks), the small house was originally built as a home for the bird-keeper of St James’s park. It also included a social room for the London Ornithological Society.
Restored in 1982, Duck Island Cottage is still in use today, now acting as an office.
Today, St James’s Park is a beautiful London destination and one which I would wholly recommend to locals and visitors alike.
Very recently however, the park revealed a dark and rather unsettling secret…
In March 2011 a body, rotted and reduced to a skeleton, was found on a small island, located towards the western tip of St James’s Park’s long canal… the grim find being unearthed mere moments away from Buckingham Palace.
The bones were spotted by a tree surgeon, who also found the site to be littered with empty vodka bottles and a mouldy, yellow pillow upon which rested the deceased’s skull.
Thanks to a passport also being found at the site, the body, which was believed to have lain in its undiscovered position for three years, was quickly identified as that of a 69 year old American called Robert James Moore.
Upon examining his past, it turned out that Mr Moore lived a troubled life.
Suffering from mental illness, the American citizen had developed a deep obsession with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, sending her some decidedly dodgy parcels during a 15 year period- including obscene photographs and oddly worded letters- some of which clocked up a staggering 600 pages.
In 2007 and in trouble with U.S police over a drink driving charge, Mr Moore travelled to London.
The American embassy in Grosvenor Square had a record of the troubled citizen taking a taxi to their premises where he sought help for paying a fine. However, after that trail went cold…until Mr Moore’s bones were found quietly resting beneath leaves on the St James’s Park island.
To access his isolated refuge, Mr Moore would have had to swim or wade.
But, once there, he would been granted a very effective vantage point from which he would have spent his final days spying on the home of the woman with whom he’d become startlingly obsessed.
The following short animated clip from a Taiwanese news-source depicts the incident in a rather bizarre manner… I’m not quite sure how accurate the depiction of the Queen’s office really is!